Deal on smoking ban possible

Merdon, Ulman seek compromise for Tuesday's vote with bill amendments


Howard County bars and restaurants would be smoke-free after three or four years if one of two compromises proposed by two County Council members wins approval at a voting session Tuesday night.

The moves to change smoking laws could signal a break in what seemed like a council deadlock on the issue, though it's still not clear which version, if any, the five-member body will accept.

What is becoming clear is that both sides are willing to compromise.

Yesterday, the final day amendments to pending legislation could be introduced, County Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, proposed delaying a smoking ban for four years, while Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, submitted a three-year grandfathering clause to a rival bill.

"I recognized I have to move from my position a little to get something passed. I don't think it's acceptable to citizens that we couldn't pass any legislation," Merdon said. His amendment was to change a bill sponsored by east Columbia Democrat David A. Rakes, who sought to allow smoking to continue indefinitely in places where it already is allowed.

Ulman's amendment for a three--year delay was to a bill tabled last month by the council. Merdon said he would not schedule a vote on that bill, sponsored by Ulman and County Executive James N. Robey. That bill called for a two-year delay on the ban.

"Within reason, I want a bill," Ulman said. "If it will help us get votes, I'd be willing to go to three years, but frankly, I thought two years was too long."

Merdon and Ulman, who are running for county executive next year, exchanged backhanded praise.

"I'm glad to see that Mr. Merdon has changed his mind and is moving in the right direction," Ulman said.

Merdon said Ulman's amendment shows something similar.

"It's recognition that the first bill was just too extreme. I'm glad to see he's [Ulman] more reasonable about the issue," Merdon said.

Robey said yesterday that he opposes Merdon's idea, but later indicated he would go along with Ulman's idea.

Anti-smoking health advocates have criticized any delay, while restaurant association President Joe Barbera said his group wants Rakes' original proposal.

Until now, there appeared to be a 3-vote majority for Rakes' bill that would indefinitely allow smoking in places that now allow it.

Merdon said his amendment "is an attempt to bring everybody together - a true compromise."

Rakes said he'll support Merdon.

"I think four years will do it. It seems to be a reasonable number," Rakes said. Western county Republican Charles C. Feaga, the third member of the new council majority, said, "It's something I will look at and consider very seriously."

The three had opposed Robey's bill because they felt business owners who invested in separate smoking areas required under a 1996 Howard law haven't had enough time to recoup their investments. They also argued that 83 percent of Howard bars and restaurants are now smoke-free, giving both patrons and business owners freedom of choice.

But Robey said yesterday after speaking to Merdon that "four years is too long. I am willing to talk and compromise, but I cannot compromise on four years."

Later, a spokesman for Robey said he is reluctantly willing to go along with Ulman's three-year delay.

Robey also is willing to go along with two smaller changes Merdon proposed that would exempt smoking in private homes and within 15 feet of the entrance to Main Street businesses from any ban, he said.

Merdon said he's trying to unify the council.

"Right now the council is all over the map on where they think smoking legislation should go. This is an attempt to find middle ground," Merdon said.

But Kari Appler, director of the Maryland Smoke Free Coalition, said "any kind of grandfathering is not a good thing. A four-year delay statewide is 4,000 more citizens who will die. It's also taking the easy way out."

She predicted a statewide smoking ban will be in place in less time.

Mark Breaux, president of the Smoke Free Howard County Tobacco Coalition, said either proposal would delay the end of smoking too long, but any law approved should include strong enforcement measures.

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